Part I: The Reluctant Bride 1866
Recently, I became familiar with the work of the 19th century French academic painter Auguste Toulmouche (1829-1890) through a Tumblr post of his creation, The Reluctant Bride. This image caught my attention because the potential wife of the narrative stares out at the viewer with such directness, even to the level of defiance. Her expression, demeanor and that look seemed incongruous with other French Salon painting that I had seen and studied in the past. Online, I was able to view other paintings by Toulmouche and in contrast to the 1866 piece, they were all bound by a certain sentimentality and idealization, both saccharine and overly sweet, as exemplified by The Love Letter from 1885. These other paintings are delicious, visual confections as indeed is The Reluctant Bride. They all display elaborately dressed, attractive women in sumptuous interiors. Toulmouche clearly delights in the rendition of the colors, textures and fabrics of beautiful clothes as well as of the objects that festoon these rooms. He also certainly loves to paint female skin. But while his other painting possess an effusive and romantic narrative, The Reluctant Bride does not.
The Licked Surface
Stylistically, all of Toulmouche’s work exhibits the licked surface, a notion of French academic painting codified in the 18th century by the French Academy in order to distinguish professional paintings from amateur ones. The licked surface of the finished work expresses the labor, skill and idea of the artist through the concealment of the brushstrokes used to actually produce the image. The 19th century maverick painter and teacher Ingres (1780-1867) explains:
The brushstroke, as accomplished as it may be, should not be visible: otherwise, it prevents the illusion immobilizes everything. Instead of the object represented, it calls attention to the process: instead of the thought it betrays the hand.
The process of the medium is sacrificed for the representation of an ideal or larger truth. For example, academic works were meant to depict LOVE not just love and often through the use of a historical or mythical subject. The artist by employing the licked surface demonstrated his ability to convey this truth of LOVE etc. uninterrupted by the visceral nature of paint.
This construct and technique also expresses the artist’s skill and labor by ironically hiding the very trace of that effort. This irony is in contrast to Impressionist painting for example which documents the process through a visible brushstroke. Within the ideology of the licked surface such images would be criticized for their seeming rapidity and quickness, their lack of skill and the interruption of the subject by the paint.
Although Toulmouche’s work is small and intimate in scale, representing narratives of daily life instead of a historical event or a Greek goddess, it is a prime exponent of the licked surface. His work represents LOVE, but on a smaller domestic scale. Yet, The Reluctant Bride with its staring female figure puts metaphorically some “grit” in both the form and content of the smooth sheen of the work’s licked finish. It is not a painting of an idea, but of a work of refusal both in the narrative and on the level of the ideology of the licked surface. For this reason, The Reluctant Bride stands out for me within his oeuvre.
The Interior of The Reluctant Bride: If only to inhabit this space and wear those clothes
The painting demonstrates Toulmouche’s strong ability to build an elaborate and intricate stage on which to place his figures. In The Reluctant Bride, almost the entire scene is framed by a huge hanging floral tapestry that covers the back wall and is comprised of swags of blossoms and flowers in vases in salmon pinks and blues with a cream background. A large mirror with an ornate guilt frame hangs on the left wall over a rouge marble mantle on top of which sits a large Chinese vase, a bronze doré and white marble clock, a gilt candlestick and a hand painted fan leaning against the mirror glass. Even the parquet wood floor gleams as if from a fresh polish. It is a room I would love to inhabit.
The four female figures are all lavishly attired in full skirts held out by crinolines. The central figure of The Bride wears a luminous white gown whose smooth, gleaming sheen is set off against the soft white downy fur that trims the dress on the bodice. To the right of the The Bride, one of her attendants (a relative or sister perhaps) who kneels at her feet wears an amazing reddish orange ochre velvet dress with dark fur trim. The other woman who kisses The Bride on the forehead wears an intricate tapestry shawl over a blue gray silk? dress. She has just arrived on the delayed marital scene. Her hat is tossed on the chair behind her and she still is wearing her shawl.
Yet, despite this luscious display of color, texture, clothing and objets d’art, the center of the work, its heart, is The Bride’s direct gaze at the painting’s viewer. All the luxury which surrounds this gaze cannot minimize or deflect the determination or power of her look. Her focus is clear and directed. She ignores her two attendants who each hold one of her hands; nor does she react to the kiss on the forehead of the lady just arriving in the shawl.
This embrace and kiss is not registered on her face which for me indicates a negation of sentimentality and sweetness. It blocks the licked surface ideal of content. She is not just reluctant about her impending marriage, she is defiant in its face. Her gaze is an act of refusal, a testament to her predicament- a marriage not of her own choosing. In the homosocial world of 19th century France the bride was an object, a transaction with a dowry that passed from father to future husband. The Bride in the Toulmouche through her possession of the gaze, a distinctly unfeminine trait in the dominant fiction, declares herself as a Subject who wishes to pursue her own destiny.
And what about the fool in the right background wearing a buff colored dress with black lace. She stands before a mirror admiring herself as she wears The Bride’s discarded headpiece of orange blossoms. She is completely unaware of the emotional drama that occurs behind her. Or if she does, she does not seem to care. In a sense, she, a younger woman perhaps or a girl, still believes in the fantasy and ideology of the wedding in contrast to The Bride. This younger woman or girl gazes upon herself relishing the day when she will wear such a headpiece. Her passive, narcissistic look expresses the traditional femininity of the dominant fiction that the central figure in white satin does not wish to enact through a wedding and marriage. The Bride gazes directly at me, she looks directly at me, she “says” directly to me, “NO.”
Part II: The Kiss 1886
Twenty years after The Reluctant Bride and only 4 years before his death Toulmouche painted The Kiss, another work which for me shows some “grit” in the ideology of the licked surface of French academic painting. Once again the painter creates his trademark- an elaborate and opulent interior in which to enact the work’s narrative.
The scene occurs in a private dining salon. Panels of blue with center floral medallions framed in a reddish gold molding are inset into dark almost black walls. The room has a heavily patterned carpet in reds, blues and pinks that covers the floor.
In the center of the room is a small square dining table covered with a creamy white tablecloth with long fringe and a cutwork inset. The table is laden with a gorgeous still-life of fruit in a china compote. There are crystal glasses, other china dishes and a large bottle of champagne. A second bottle in a silver ice bucket sits on the rug next to the table leg. Two typically French upholstered gilt wood chairs are also partially visible.
And who are the players on this beautiful stage? They both wear costumes rather than the everyday clothes of the 1880’s. Perhaps they have attended a costume ball and have now slipped away from the crowd for a private dessert tête-à-tête The man on the left wears the white satin outfit of a French Pierrot, a character from the French Commedia dell’ Arte. But this is no sad clown pining for love. This clown is kissing the object of his desire. He wins his Columbine.
She is a beautiful object with dark hair and porcelain skin. She wears a pale pink silk dress with a fitted bodice and a tiered ruffled skirt in a slightly deeper pink. The skirt has an overlay of tulle-like fabric embroidered with shiny silver flowers. A bouquet of pink roses appears to fasten and gather the tulle creating a sort of bustle. She completes her coquettish look with delicate pink shoes and a jaunty white hat with a white feather.
I do not recognize her costume. Is she a courtesan, a prostitute, a mistress? A courtesan like Zola’s Nana? (To be like Nana, a courtesan of the Second Empire, sounds wonderful to me, but of course without the punishing death. Sorry for the tangent, but I am fascinated by courtesans, concubines, etc.) But, this painting is many years after Napoleon III though Nana set in the Second Empire was written in 1880, so perhaps there is a connection. Otherwise, it is unclear.
What is evident is the passion of their kiss. The painting captures a fevered moment . It is as if suddenly seized by desire in this private space, the man and woman push back their chairs and take the shortest route to each other’s lips- across the table, leaning forward on their palms. They kiss above the compote overflowing with colorful fruit. There is a visual (oral) slippage between the fruit- ripe, juicy, ready to be eaten, ready to satiate the eater and give him/her pleasure and the kiss- the touching of moist lips, mouths wet with saliva, mouths and tongues ready to enjoy and be enjoyed, the pleasure of a physical connection with a desired individual in a darkened, intimate and private room.
The Kiss is a passionate painting devoid of sentimentality but brimming with the desire that all of us experience and have experienced being in a room alone with someone we fancy, sharing a glass of champagne with him and some good food and delighting in that first kiss, that first touch. This painting is unlike the sappiness of other Toulmouche works like The Love Letter or the type of academic painting that verged on soft core pornography such as Love on the Lookout by William-Adolphe Bourgereau from 1890. (In the Bourgereau, idealization ends and creepiness begins.) In this way, therefore, The Kiss disrupts the ideology of the licked surface and its notion of the ideal and the thought- represent LOVE not love. Though the figures in the Toulmouche are costumed, they are grounded in a reality of passion and desire and not an evocation of an abstract idea through a mythical or historical subject.
It would be interesting to research further if The Kiss was exhibited at the Salon. What was the reaction of the critics and the public? Was this image considered scandalous? Did it get noticed? Or was it just ignored? I think if I was strolling through the Salon like a flâneur, scrutinizing its myriad of pictures hung from floor to ceiling, I would stop at this Toulmouche, look intently and revel in the intimate beginning of desire between the 2 figures and imagine what their next moment might be.
PS- Toulmouche’s The Kiss is currently for sale. I inquired with the gallery as to price etc. and they replied that it is “on reserve” and that they would contact me if that deal fell through. This reply might have been a polite way of blowing me off. I imagine the price is upwards of a $100,000 which is certainly not in my budget. I will post any new developments.